Every year, The A.V. Club reports from the South By Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas. This year, we sent five writers—Josh Modell, Sean O’Neal, Kyle Ryan, Marah Eakin, and Marc Hawthorne—who will be filing daily mini-reports on the best stuff they saw, ate, and did. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.
Though I arrived in Austin on Tuesday, I had a bunch of meetings and didn’t see anything but Cloud Nothings’ excellent set at the Pitchfork interactive party. They played a bunch of new material, and while the sound left a little something to be desired—it always does at SXSW—it was the perfect way to kick off the fest for me.
Wednesday was a little more productive: I had some meetings, got in kind of a wicked cab accident (I’m okay!), and saw a decent amount of bands. I hit up Skeletonwitch’s entirely too sunny set at the Pitchfork metal party, where the band played several new songs and head-banged with an exceptionally admirable amount of aplomb. The crowd was equal parts awesome—Weathered leather vests! Sketchy metal tees!—and terrible—the woman in front of me kept doing a two-handed “hang loose” gesture instead of devil horns. All in all, a good time, and a great band.
I had a little time to kill after that, so I scarfed some pizza and stumbled across a band playing on the patio at Beerland. The local band, Dikes Of Holland, was cranking out all sorts of great garage-punk songs, and the band’s lead singer, who the group’s Facebook page identifies as “Liz Burrito,” has a kind of adorable Kathleen Hanna thing happening. I approve and would happily recommend them to anyone.
I waited in line with Marc and Sean to see Japandroids and Iggy And The Stooges, both of whom were excellent. Iggy and company’s new songs, like “Burn” and a cut about finding a way to beat up a guy you hate, were surprisingly good. That bodes well for the band’s upcoming release, April’s Ready To Die. Also, having never seen it in person before yesterday, I can now say for certain that Iggy Pop has very, very weird skin.
I tried to watch sets from Café Tacvba at Stubb’s and Merchandise at Viceland, but both bands were so mind-blowingly boring that I quickly bailed, ending up at Austin City Limits Live to check out, weirdly, The Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines with special guest Ben Harper, and eventually Iron And Wine. Sam Beam’s new material has a real sensual swing to it, sounding more Sade than Sufjan—and that’s a very good thing. His new record, Ghost On Ghost, is out April 16.
One of the main objectives of most SXSW attendees is to see as many new artists as possible, whether that means checking out the buzziest of-the-moment band or, in some cases, just catching someone you've never seen before. That's what led me on Wednesday to check out bands like Portland psych-pop outfit Wampire, Vancouver punks White Lung, Scottish electro-pop trio CHVRCHES, Brooklyn indie-rock noisemakers TEEN, classical-kid-turned-gothy-adult Charlotte Church, and geriatric Motor City punk-rock legends Iggy And The Stooges, though it turned out it was a SXSW 2012 favorite of mine that ruled the day. St. Lucia is the Brooklyn electro-fied indie-rock outfit led by South African-born Jean-Philip Grobler, who treated his band's 2:30 p.m. set at Consequence Of Sound's party at The Parish like he was headlining the festival's closing night. The band pretty easily got the crowd in the smaller bottom portion of the venue all hot and bothered with its danceable rock, seamlessly mixing in new tracks with fan favorites like "Closer Than This" and "September." But it was the crowd-participation portion of the show, when Grobler got everyone to sing the "Don't go away" part of "We Got It Wrong," when the afternoon found its high point. Grobler told me afterward that St. Lucia's debut full-length will hopefully be out later this summer. Wednesday's honorable mention goes to L.A.'s Poolside, who went ahead and started their set at 1:45 a.m. even though Red 7 has the standard 2 a.m. curfew. The multi-culti electro-pop group pushed things to about 2:10, and those who were left in the audience ate up the band's laid-back grooves. It reminded me of Bran Van 3000 (remember them?), so back at the hotel I fell asleep to YouTube playing "Drinking In L.A."
I arrived earlier this year so I could check out part of SXSW Interactive—Music’s nerdy, square sibling—which allowed for a couple film screenings I might have otherwise missed. The first, The Punk Singer, is a documentary about Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre. As the co-founder of the riot grrrl movement and an outspoken social critic for roughly two decades, she’s led a fascinating life that abruptly retreated from the public eye around 2005. Sini Anderson’s humane, affecting documentary examines Hanna’s legacy and the issues that caused her to stop performing. It suffers a bit when it glosses over events and time periods—it can be hard to tell when some of these things happened—but Hanna is a fascinating figure, and The Punk Singer is downright inspirational.
The second film I saw was Medora, co-directed by Andrew Cohn and Found magazine creator (and friend of The A.V. Club) Davy Rothbart, a portrait of a chronically winless high-school basketball team from a tiny, dying down in Indiana. Cohn and Rothbart spent a year living in Medora and filming these kids, and the trust their subjects had in the filmmakers comes through onscreen. Medora is more a meditation on life in a moribund small town—and subject to some of the clichés involved with that—but it’s beautifully executed and moving all the same.
The most bananas thing I’ve seen so far was an event for something called #EVOKE13, which featured an only-at-SXSW mix of Chris Hardwick, Divine Fits, Cirque Du Soleil, and a bunch of tech speeches. It was part of Interactive, but damned if I had any idea what the actual event was for. Turns out what was billed as “the Nerdist experience” was an interminable live panel with Hardwick interviewing people from Cirque Du Soleil, but eventually Divine Fits showed up to play an abbreviated set before an awe-inspiring Cirque performance. Really, in retrospect, it was only a matter of time before the figurative circus of SXSW met a real one.
With all the talk of big, seminal artists playing SXSW this year—Prince, Smashing Pumpkins, supposedly Daft Punk—it’s always nice to escape the clusterfuckery of those events for something much more low rent. I went to the super-tiny patio of Headhunters to check out British stoner-metal duo Wet Nuns because I liked its name, and its bio sounded promising. Guitarist Rob Graham introduced Wet Nuns as “Britain’s poorest band,” and with his long guitar cable, he was able to reach all points of Headhunters’ small patio. If people wanted to leave or come in, they had to go around him. It was a fun set, and with the club only miking the kick drum and vocals, a nice antidote to the overproduction of other SXSW events.
My goal for this SXSW was to see Scottish electro-pop outfit CHVRCHES, so I arrived to the Windish Agency showcase unreasonably early just to guarantee I could see the band when it went on at 12:30. The trio only has a three-song EP to its name—and that doesn’t come out until later this month—but the band scored one of 2012’s best indie singles with “The Mother We Share.” Singer Lauren Mayberry looks a little timid on stage, but her band’s quick rise and SXSW debut would be enough to rattle anyone. A full-length is due this September, and it looks to be great.
The first day at SXSW Music usually starts slow—even if I think I’m going to dive right in, it takes a while to get badged up and rolling. So after some Rachael Ray eats and some settling in, I didn’t actually see my first band until 10:30 p.m., and that band was Tenacious D. The duo appeared at a Yahoo! party pretty much solely to promote a new web show that Jack Black’s company is producing, called Ghost Ghirls. They showed a pair of episodes—it’s a pretty funny show starring two ladies who seem destined for bigger things, and one ep featured Black, Val Kilmer, and Dave Grohl—before a short Q&A, and then a seemingly endless wait for Black and Kyle Gass to rock your fuckin’ socks off. They were fine. You can’t go home again.
Then it was off to the ACL Theater, one of the larger venues at SX. I caught the tail end of Natalie Maines’ set, and all of Iron And Wine, who played—as a 13-piece, including Kelly Hogan on backing vocals—mostly stuff from their mellow, layered new album Ghost On Ghost. Then I saw the star of my first day in Austin: pork-belly sliders from the East Side King food truck. Yum.
Part of the reason for Josh’s and my slow start to SXSW is that someone apparently claimed my badge before I could. So, if fest attendees see a guy wearing a badge with the name “Sean O’Neal” on it, there’s a 50-50 chance he’s an imposter. Please buy him a drink, as a demonstration of society’s benevolence. The shame he feels will be instructive.
Anyway, after resolving my minor case of identity theft, then waiting around for some free Rachael Ray sausage that wasn’t really worth it, I joined Marc and Marah at the Mohawk for Iggy And The Stooges. Marah’s report pretty well covers it, though I will add that, as always, Iggy Pop looked remarkably well preserved, suggesting back in the day he must have been shooting a little wax with his heroin. I’m sure the woman who lobbed her panties at him would agree.
Then I watched Andy Stott play to a surprisingly modest crowd at Elysium, given how much attention Luxury Problems got last year, though the extra room gave everything an appropriately relaxed vibe for Stott’s darkly ambient slow dance. I saw him in Chicago just before leaving and was surprised at how uptempo and aggressive it was. Here, it more closely matched the mood of his albums, with Stott conjuring hypnotic waves of murky distortion over a throbbing bass that everyone absorbed in their own private headspace.
One of this year’s most hotly tipped artists, Autre Ne Veut slots nicely in the current ghostly, neo-R&B trend, but his songs have a glossier sheen to them, and singer Arthur Ashin’s voice has a raspy quality that recalls generations of fellow white-boy soul singers. I (sort of) jokingly compared the group to “The Weeknd and How To Dress Well meets Steve Winwood” on Twitter and got lots of “that’s shockingly accurate” responses, so I guess I’m not alone on this. Anyway, he seems primed to blow up—and someone should get him to record the end-credits love ballad for an action movie soon.
I slipped into Red 7 to watch Australian producer Flume twiddle some knobs, a set that vacillated between his own galvanizing, hip-hop-influenced electronics and reworked, actual hip-hop songs from The Notorious B.I.G. and the like. It was a solid set in the moment, but the line was so blurred between creating, remixing, and just straight DJing that it didn’t leave much of an impression.
Finally, I caught Ghostface Killah as he took the Mohawk stage at the predictable 20-minutes-late mark, then similarly predictably proceeded to give over most of his set to his entourage—chiefly Sheek Louch, who performed so many of his own songs, it was basically a Trojan-horsed Sheek Louch headlining set. And as happens way too often with live Ghostface, songs like “One” and his duet with Louch, “Movie Niggas” (which would have been awesome to hear in full) flew by in teasing, quarter-verse spurts before screeching to a halt.
Really, the best part was when Ghost solicited the crowd for audience members to do Method Man’s and Old Dirty Bastard’s verses on “Protect Ya Neck”: The dreadlocked guy who filled in for Method Man nailed it, bringing the first real energy to the stage, while the blonde girl who tried to do ODB hilariously bombed to a chorus of boos, leading to her being yanked and replaced with a skinny white guy who similarly gave it his all. Anyway, having seen GZA pull this same aloof shit two years ago: Seriously, Wu-Tang dudes, if you don’t feel like actually performing at SXSW, you could just let someone hungrier have your slot.